What Is the Learning Curve and How Does It Work?


We’ve all heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”, but where does it come from? In corporate learning environments, we often speak of the learning curve; but what does the learning curve mean, and how can companies maximize its impact in the context of corporate training?

The history of the learning curve

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus coined the term we now know as the learning curve. What is it? Well, put simply, it’s the idea that practice makes perfect.

Ebbinghaus tested the theory himself by memorizing a series of nonsense syllables and documenting his success at reciting them back. The result? When he repeated the same task over and over again, he was not only more likely to remember, but also less likely to forget. He initially referred to this as the Forgetting Curve—realizing that if learning is rehearsed and repeated over a period of time, we forget less and remember more.

Now, reading this today, it sure sounds like a common sense principle. We all understand that the more we do something, the better we’ll get. But up until Ebbinghaus’s experiment, no one had taken the time to study human memory.

The famous graph

The learning curve is often seen as a graphical representation where experience (time, trials, etc.) is on the x-axis and learning (performance, knowledge, etc.) is on the y-axis, emphasizing the idea that learning improves with experience.

illustration of the forgetting curve [retention of new information over time, without repetition: 100% immediately after learning, 60% 20 minutes after learning, 30% 1 day after learning, 25% 1 week after learning]

Why the learning curve is key to great training

Why should we care? As a society, we spend a lot of time identifying the different ways people learn. We understand that some people are visual learners, others are auditory, and we recognize that no learner is the same in regards to how long it takes them to grasp a subject.

Because of this, we’ve seen a rise in a more hands-on and technology-focused approach to teaching in school—which is excellent! This same principle should be applied in business, too.  

If we know that an employee performs better with continued experience and training, why do we throw them into the line of fire with minimal resources? Or, a better question might be, why do we continue to spend time and money on the same training that hasn’t proven to be useful in the past?

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Using Adult Learning Theory for Better Learning Outcomes

Two tips for implementing the learning curve

1. Use interactions to boost learner retention

Interactions are opportunities in training for learners to apply what they’ve learned in practice. This is super important for adult learners, who often absorb information more readily when there is reality-based application. We learn best by doing, just as Ebbinghaus discovered.

With eLearning, interactions could include flashcards, quizzes, accordions, or tabs. For an even stronger impact, opt for scenario-based learning to mimic the real world—giving learners an opportunity to get up close and personal with the skills they’re learning. If you’re in a traditional training setting, roleplay exercises make for powerful interactions (coupled with a debrief) to boost retention.

2. Enhance one-off training with blended learning

In a utopian fantasy world built on efficiency and productivity, one-off training for employees would cover a company’s entire learning needs. That’s exactly what it is though, a fantasy. And the learning curve tells us that the more times learners practice and repeat what they learn, the more they’ll retain the education.

Enter blended learning: instructor-led training that is enhanced through post-session eLearning such as online practice questions, scenario learning, or video roleplay assignments. The best part? This kind of training maximizes the effectiveness of in-person learning and eLearning keeping your team on the learning curve.

Invest in effective training to maximize the learning curve

When it comes to training, research shows that within an hour, people will have forgotten an average of 50% of the information they just learned. Within 24 hours, they have forgotten an average of 70% of new information, and within a week, forgetting claims an average of 90%. 

To improve productivity and efficiency in the now, we should start cutting costs on training that isn’t working and start investing in smarter options. Let’s take Ebbinghaus’s discovery that people learn more and forget less when they are given the information in small, bite-sized pieces over time.

You can do this by providing them with comprehensive apps and eLearning that allows the employee access to the quality resources they need when they need it. Not only that, but it fosters an environment that continues to challenge their learning even after their formal training has been completed—using customized methods that have been proven to deliver positive results.

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